Why was the testimony of Victoria Adams stamped “TOP SECRET”?
The short answer is, I have no idea.
There are three classification levels used by the US government for what it considers “sensitive” material: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. Confidential, the lowest rank, is described as information that would cause “damage” to national security if publically released without authorization. Secret would be deemed to cause “serious damage.” Top Secret, the highest and most critical level, would result in “exceptionally grave damage.”
I’ve been told the government frowns upon what it calls “over classification.” So why was it felt Vicki’s words would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the national security of the United States? Could it be because she had once been a nun?
I don’t think so.
At this point, readers should be aware of the distinction between the two versions of Vicki’s official testimony: one that appears in the 26 volumes stating she waived her right to review and sign it (below),
And a second more recently released version which she actually did sign after making handwritten corrections (below).
I first read a steno’s transcript of Vicki’s official testimony in 1968 at the National Archives in downtown Washington. This was the unsigned version that displayed a prominent “TOP SECRET” stamp on the top and bottom of each of its 23 pages, with a declassification date of November 1967. Although it was not made available at the Archives back then, the front cover to an identical copy of her testimony provided by the Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor shows this notation in red in the upper right corner:
“This document contains information affecting the national defense of the United States within the meaning of the Espionage Laws Title 18 USC, Sections 793 and 794. The transmission or the revelation of its contents in any manner to an unauthorized person is prohibited by law.”
Espionage? Vicki Adams?
I don’t think so.
Section 793 of that Code would apply if, for instance, Vicki had slyly snapped photographs or made sketches while flying over naval yards, arsenals, research labs, fueling posts, forts, signal stations, torpedo bases, or any other authoritatively clammed up facility. Section 794 lists the penalties if, for instance, Vicki discreetly met with a foreign spy at Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse to pass along such ill-gotten gains.
Vicki also disclosed in her testimony that she was wearing trendy three-inch heels. Was that the shocker the government wanted held back from fashion-deprived devushkas?
I don’t think so.
As they appear in the Archives, the depositions of some mild-mannered witnesses—Jack Dougherty, Barbara Rowland and Anne Boudreaux, for example—also show baffling Top Secret classifications. Others, like Forrest Sorrels and Bill Decker, are labeled Confidential. Jim Leavelle, who started out at Top Secret, was reduced to Confidential under Executive Order 10501, a rather obscure 1953 Eisenhower edict that again focused on US defense and security matters. Then there were those who seemed more liable of possessing skeletons, such as Sylvia Odio, Edwin Walker, and Carlos Bringuier, who lacked any designation whatsoever.
I have no idea who made those classifications. So I asked Howard Willens about all this and he said, “I have no idea who made those classifications. I have no recollection of a discussion of classifications with Lee Rankin. I agree with you that some of the classifications seem inappropriate. I conclude that there was someone along the process that made these judgments.”
Which is odd since it is more often than not the originating agency—in this case the Warren Commission—that decides whether to classify or not classify a document and, if the former, at what classification level it deserves. But if it wasn’t the Commission’s responsibility, did it fall on the shoulders of the National Archives?
“We took possession of the Warren Commission Records in November of 1964,” explained Gene Morris, a NARA Textual Reference spokesman. “The records included files that were either at the time or had previously been classified Top Secret, Secret, or Confidential. Any declassification done after that date would have been done while the records were in our custody. However, the National Archives does not have declassification authority, so another agency would have declassified them.”
Recall that in the transcript of Vicki’s testimony at the National Archives in 1968 and in her published testimony in the 26 volumes, we are told Vicki “waived” her right to examine and sign off on her deposition. That TOP SECRET transcript had a declassification date of November 21, 1967. There is an identical copy of that testimony in the Gerald Ford Library that also is unsigned and stamped TOP SECRET.
But for some reason this particular copy holds a declassification date of January 23, 1975.
It was this unsigned version of her deposition that the HSCA reviewed during its late-70s investigation.
Then came The Girl on the Stairs, which revealed a previously withheld June 2, 1964 transmittal letter from Dallas written by Asst. US Attorney Martha Joe Stroud. Among other tidbits, the letter disclosed that a second version of Vicki’s testimony now existed. It nonchalantly mentioned that Vicki—sometime after her deposition and before Miss Stroud penned her letter—had been given a copy of her deposition to review, that she had made several grammatical corrections to it, and that she had in fact signed it after all.
As a matter of routine, Miss Stroud was forwarding this now completed transcript to J. Lee Rankin, As a result of the Stroud letter being made public, this new signed and amended version of her testimony was placed in her file in the National Archives. The unsigned transcript, which previously had resided there for all those years, vanished.
Strangely, this latest version of her deposition shows a third declassification stamp, one dated February 9, 2011.
What all this means is that as of June 1964, the Commission had in hand a properly signed and witness-corrected transcript of Vicki’s official testimony. Why then did it neglect this deposition and instead have the unsigned, uncorrected transcript published?
Did it simply forget about the signed copy?
I don’t think so.
Because if you compare the unsigned transcript with the signed transcript, you’ll find that the unsigned version contains a revision that only shows up on the signed version! That means the signed and corrected version of Vicki’s testimony was not only available to the Commission, but at least one portion of it was altered, and that alteration was then used in her testimony published in the 26 volumes.
On the more recent version of her testimony—that which was declassified only after publication of The Girl on the Stairs—we see this:
Here’s how that section appears in Vicki’s testimony in the 26 volumes:
Miss Adams. That’s correct.
Mr. Belin. It would be slightly east of the front of the east elevator, and probably as far south as the length of the elevator, is that correct?
Miss Adams. Yes, sir. (6H390)
Notice how Vicki’s words, “At a point which I would describe as slightly to the east and somewhat to the north of the east elevator” (my emphasis) have been stricken from the record. Those missing words are then paraphrased into Belin’s response but with a 90-degree difference: north becomes south.
What this shows is that the later transcript was read, then edited beyond the corrections Vicki made to her deposition (her corrections being ignored). The cross outs were not done by the witness, whose modus operandi was to insert a corrected word using her stylish penmanship, as shown here:
Why would Vicki’s words be edited out, and subsequently changed, when it appears they were nothing more than an innocuous detail regarding someone’s location? Why, after she agreed it was unnecessary, did the Commission still seek to have her review and sign her testimony? Why, now possessing that officially endorsed version that it sought, did the Commission choose instead to submit to the Government Printing Office the less formal transcript?
“It’s unclear why some depositions were labeled with different classifications,” Gene Morris continued. “We reviewed a selection of a dozen or so Key Persons files and we noted that the transcripts for Robert Adams, Vickie [sic] Adams, James Maurice Solomon, and Charles H. Steele, Jr. were all stamped Top Secret, so Ms. Adam’s [sic] deposition is not unique in that regard. Each is speaking of different things and we cannot identify any commonality that would indicate why it was classified at that level or at all. At this point, we have no idea why the classifications were made the way they were.”
I also have no idea why her testimony needed three separate declassifications: the unsigned, uncorrected versions at the National Archives in 1967 and the Gerald Ford Library in 1975, and the signed, corrected version in the National Archives as recently as 2011.
That alone does not denote sinister implications. But it certainly is strange, as many I’ve questioned about this agree. So I asked Howard Willens why he felt there may have been the need for three such actions if the testimony had remained virtually the same throughout and only one declassification seemed sufficient. His reply?
“I have no idea.”